Shock as architect of reform is sacked

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The Independent Online
AS THE smoke cleared after Boris Yeltsin's astonishing government shake-up yesterday, one figure stood out against the charred political landscape.

Finally, after so many premature obituaries, Viktor Chernomyrdin was departing the field, ending a career as prime minister which began at the dawn of Russia's faltering economic reforms. The replacement of the 59-year-old premier by a man more than two decades younger came as a shock to the outside world, where he was widely seen as a pillar of stability amid Russia's erratic efforts to convert itself into a Western-style economy.

For years, readers of the runes in Moscow have wrongly forecast his demise. But his abrupt exit in favour of 35-year-old Sergei Kiriyenko was foreseen by almost no one. Mr Yeltsin was supposed to be operating at half-steam, recovering from yet another bout of illness. And Russia was, by its standards, enjoying a period of calm.

Whether Mr Kiriyenko will now be called on to try to maintain that calm on a permanent basis is unclear. Although he is favoured by the Kremlin, it is uncertain if his appointment will be confirmed in parliament. Recently appointed as fuel and energy minister, he is better known for his friendship with Boris Nemtsov, one of Mr Yeltsin's more ardent reformers. Yet his arrival is likely to be seen in the West as a sign that the President's pledge to press on with reforms is sincere.

When Mr Chernomyrdin was appointed just over five years ago, the international reaction resounded with the sound of sucking teeth. He was seen as a Soviet dinosaur, an energy baron with little love for the free-market economics of Anatoly Chubais, the First Deputy Prime Minister who was also dismissed yesterday, but is expected to stay in the President's team.

But he departs office with a different reputation. Although Western financial institutions generally preferred the hardline market economics of the Kremlin's misnamed "young reformers", the prime minister's stolid presence became a source of reassurance. He was also seen as one of the few senior officials capable of negotiating with the Communist and nationalist opposition. Yet he was frequently portrayed as a dull technocrat, a verbose plodder who was better suited to trotting doggedly behind the flamboyant Yeltsin than occupying the Kremlin himself.

This reputation has clung to him despite copious efforts to make himself more interesting, by appearing on television playing the accordion, riding a jet-ski, guffawing with laughter at his own "Spitting Image"-style puppet and negotiating live on air for the release of hundreds of Russians taken hostage during the Chechen war.

His dismissal is unlikely to mark the end of his political ambitions. Boris Yeltsin has long been rumoured to see him as his successor although, while lavishing praise on his loyal minister yesterday, the President was ambiguous on this front yesterday. Yet Mr Chernomyrdin remains high on the list of Kremlin contenders. Nor - given Mr Yeltsin's unpredictable nature - is his come-back to be ruled out.

He has a formidable political arsenal. A former head of the oil monopoly, Gazprom, he is the chieftain of the powerful energy lobby. He has great personal wealth. And he has considerable political cunning, honed by five years of Kremlin intrigues. If he can secure the support of the ruling elite as a compromise candidate, he will continue to be a contender to be reckoned with.

His term in office will scarcely go down in history as Russia's brightest hour.He will be rightly praised for presiding over an administration that has stabilised the rouble, brought inflation under control, and halted the sharp downward spiral of the economy. But his administration's failures outweigh its triumphs.

Promise after promise to pay vast wage and pensions arrears have proved worthless. The country's finances, shackled by continuing problems over tax collection and a gargantuan welfare state, remain precarious. Corruption has continued unabated. Defeat in the Chechen war remains a scar in the national memory. Squabbles between the more ruthless free- marketeers, bankers, and advocates of a gradual approach abounded unchecked. Too little of the money that swirls around Moscow has found its way into Russia's regions.

Mr Yeltsin's declaration yesterday that the current cabinet "could not cope with a number of key questions" and that "many people do not feel the changes for the better" will have set heads nodding in agreement over all 11 time zones of his vast country.